There was more than one message embedded in Jordan’s mass protests earlier this month, which resulted in the resignation of one of the most unpopular governments in the kingdom’s recent history. The spontaneous eruption of nightly anti-government protests over six consecutive days was led almost entirely by young men and women, most of whom belonged to the middle class.
For a country that overwhelmingly comprises citizens who are under the age of 35, this was not surprising. The driving force behind the hirak, or movement, was socioeconomic in nature. But it would be foolish to discount inter-related political factors.
Like previous governments before it, the outgoing government of Prime Minister Hani Al Mulki was implementing an economic policy that was dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and exclusively focused on fiscal adjustment. It was like handing the responsibility for running the country to a bunch of accountants. The government had little taste or sensitivity to the socioeconomic reverberations of an austerity programme that has been running for almost a decade.
But even then the government was selective in its adoption of quick fixes. While removing subsidies on essential foodstuffs and fuel products, it resisted pressure to downsize a bloated public sector that was responsible for sapping more than a half of the annual state budget. It also did nothing to reform its public sector pension system which was putting a heavy load on its current account. While putting more taxes and fees on its citizens, it ignored calls to adopt harsh and painful measures to transform the kingdom from a rentier to a productive state.
And it refused to admit defeat even when the national debt had spiralled to about $40 billion (Dh146.9 billion), sliding the country towards insolvency.
So even as it was busy tinkering with its fiscal policy it remained dependent on foreign aid and grants while failing to boost the economy, which was growing at an average of 2.5 per cent annually; too little to meet fast-changing demographic realities.
A decade of shortsighted policies has failed to deal with Jordan’s most acute problems and challenges: unemployment and poverty. Between 2015 and 2018 the rate of unemployment jumped from 14 per cent to more than 18 per cent annually. With nearly 100,000 young Jordanians joining the work force every year, that challenge had become insurmountable. Furthermore, economic stagnation, which was exacerbated by regional turmoil, inflation and an almost zero growth in salaries, meant that the government was failing to deal with the poverty challenge. By the end of last year, more than 20 per cent of the population was below the poverty line.
Corruption, cronyism and patronage further complicated the picture. Jordanians became convinced that corruption and misuse of public funds had become institutionalised and part of a new and vicious culture. Lack of political will to change course meant that it was only a matter of time before the system had come to a halt.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
And it did last May when the government insisted on getting a docile and loyal parliament to pass a controversial income tax draft law that was not debated by or discussed with representatives of various economic sectors. Some of the articles in the proposed law were described as draconian, threatening to decimate what remains of the kingdom’s ailing middle class. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Jordan’s youth were the fired-up engine that pushed thousands of people, first in Amman and later across the kingdom, to the streets. They were angry and in despair and they were out there to fend for their future. The fact that the core of the protesters was made of middle class Jordanians — well educated, westernised, liberals and social media savvy — speaks volumes. They were out there — completely detached from irrelevant political parties and ideologically motivated activists — because they had nothing to lose; because successive governments, with their half-solutions and obsession with fiscal correctness, had usurped their future and taken the last hope from them.
Jordan’s beleaguered youth had spoken and their message was loud and clear. They demanded accountability, transparency and social justice — three things that were eroding from Jordanian society. They wanted to have a say in their future and through their peaceful protests they had collectively sent a clear message to the upper echelons of the state.
It is true that Jordan’s young men and women have now dispersed. But they are still out there — watching the new government’s every move. They have become Jordan’s fresh and empowered force; largely non-ideological but certainly not naive or simple minded. In so many ways they have rekindled a sense of hope and optimism across the kingdom.
Their victory was underlined by the introduction of an important statement in King Abdullah’s letter of designation to Prime Minister designate Omar Razzaz — the adoption of a new social contract. Now all is needed is the political will to forge that social contract.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.